An Unlikely Ballerina: Misty Copeland
By Stacy Parish, Children’s Department
There you are, minding your own business, just trying to be an average teenager—daughter, sister, middle school student, hall monitor, drill team member—when your drill team coach suggests that you go check out a ballet class taught by her friend at your local Boys and Girls Club, the place where you hang out after school in order to avoid the grim, grimy two hotel rooms that you and your mother and your five siblings call home. So you go, and are an audience of one in the bleachers for a few weeks, until you summon the courage to stand at a ballet barre for the very first time. You spend an hour feeling like a “broken marionette,” awkward and clueless and a little overwhelmed, and then you put it all in the rearview mirror and scurry past that section of the gym for the next few days. But Cynthia, the dance instructor isn’t letting you off the hook that easily. You eventually drop your defenses to her relentless persuasion and begin taking classes in earnest, but you are still haunted by insecurity and doubt.
Then, something in you changes. Your confidence rises. You begin to believe what everyone else is telling you: that someday, you will dance in front of kings and queens, and that you will have a life that most people cannot even imagine.
You are a ballerina.
In case you haven’t twigged to it yet, the “you” in the vignette above is ballet dancer Misty Copeland, the first African-American woman to be promoted to principal dancer in the prestigious American Ballet Theatre’s history.
Misty Danielle Copeland was born on September 10, 1982 in Kansas City, Missouri, to Doug and Sylvia Copeland. She is the youngest of four siblings from her mother’s second marriage and has two younger siblings, one each from her mother’s third and fourth marriages. Misty has no childhood memories of her father; she didn’t see Doug Copeland from age 2, when Sylvia, a former Kansas City Chiefs cheerleader, left Doug and loaded Misty and her siblings onto a Greyhound bus bound for Bellflower, California until she was 22, when she was traveling the world with American Ballet Theatre. “From the time I turned two, my life was in constant motion,” Misty states in her memoir Life In Motion. And that statement is not an exaggeration. Misty’s childhood was unstable and turbulent, and she has said that in retrospect, she used to measure time through the sequence of her mother’s dependency upon an ever-changing string of men. “We Copelands were like a nomadic tribe: hardy, fiercely protective of our band, and adaptable. We clung tightly to one another.” Those familial bonds would be severely strained in Misty’s teen years, when she had to make an excruciating choice: legally declare her emancipation from Sylvia in order to continue her dancing, or give up her dreams and remain with her family.
A lengthy series of legal machinations ensued when Misty began emancipation proceedings from Sylvia, at the urging of her longtime instructor and mentor Cynthia Bradley, with whose family Misty had been living during the week for the past three years, and returning to her mother’s home, two hotel rooms at the Sunset Inn in Gardena, California, on the weekends. Sylvia retained the services of lawyer Gloria Allred and they claimed that Misty had been “brainwashed” by the Bradleys and that they turned Misty against Sylvia by belittling her intelligence. After several court hearings in autumn of 1998, the emancipation proceedings were dropped, as well as the restraining order and charges of stalking and harassment by Sylvia against the Bradleys. Misty would return to her mother’s custody, and she wouldn’t see Cynthia or Patrick Bradley again for more than a decade.
Misty completed high school in California, and in September of 2000 joined the ABT Studio Company, which is the American Ballet Theatre’s second company. In 2001 she was promoted to ABT’s Corps de ballet. She was sidelined for a year due to a lumbar stress fracture, but recovered and embarked upon a series of beautiful, memorable roles in La Bayadere, Swan Lake, and Cinderella, to name only a few. In August of 2007, she was promoted to soloist, one of the youngest dancers ever to achieve that distinction. She was a standout among her dancing peers and appeared in The Firebird, Don Quixote, Le Corsaire, The Nutcracker, Coppelia, and Sleeping Beauty, to name just a few of the numerous productions she danced in over the ensuing years. On June 30, 2015, she was promoted to principal ballerina, the first African-American woman to achieve such an honor in the 75-year history of the American Ballet Theatre.
Misty currently resides in New York City with her fiancé Olu Evans, a Manhattan attorney. You can read more about Misty’s amazing life in the 2014 memoir she co-authored with Charisse Jones titled Life In Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina (Simon and Schuster; 92 COPELAND.) She also co-wrote a children’s picture book, Firebird (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, J E COPELAND), and in November 2015 she announced plans to publish a health and beauty guide tentatively titled Ballerina Body.
*** author’s note: this is the first in a series I’m going to call “Amazing Women Athletes.” The theme for this year’s Summer Reading Program is sports-related, so, you know. I take my inspiration wherever I can find it.